Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security: Turning Point—The Bomb and The Cold War

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Director and Executive Producer, Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War

Vice President, Global Nuclear Policy Program, Nuclear Threat Initiative

Senior Fellow, The Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons, Council on Strategic Risks; CFR Member


Faculty Scholar, Institute of Global Politics, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

The Netflix series Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War is an exploration of the decades-long conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union framed by current events that reveal the Cold War continues and the world remains on the precipice of nuclear war. Join us for a special screening of episode nine of the series, followed by a discussion on the ongoing danger posed by nuclear weapons amidst present-day conflicts and how recent advancements, including artificial intelligence, influence the risks related to nuclear warfare.

The full series of Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War is out on Netflix now. 

The Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security was established in 2002 and is endowed by a number of Council members and the family and friends of Paul C. Warnke. The lecture commemorates his legacy of courageous service to the nation and international peace.

NAFTALI: (In progress)—Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security. I am Tim Naftali, faculty scholar at the Institute of Global Politics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. And I will be presiding over this evening’s discussion.  

The Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security was established in 2002 and is dedicated to the memory of Paul Warnke, member and former director of the Council on Foreign Relations. The lecture commemorates his legacy of courageous service to the nation and to international peace. I might add, when I was a graduate student I helped organize a visit that he made to the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, where he talked about his commitment to a safer world and arms control. So I feel a sense of the closing of a circle today by being in this position. And I’m so grateful to the Council for asking me to participate tonight. We are thrilled to have Stephen Warnke and two of his children, Paul and Annie, with us here tonight, and are grateful to him for his family’s generosity and continued involvement at CFR.  

I am equally grateful and delighted to be sharing the stage not only with Brian, virtually, but also with two public servants and policy intellectuals who have devoted their careers to making our world a safer place. Lynn Rusten served as the senior director for arms control and nonproliferation on the White House National Security Council staff, and held positions at the State Department, including chief of staff for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, and senior advisor in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Andrew Weber served for five and a half years as the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs. He was a driving force behind the Nunn-Lugar initiative, about which we’ll talk about a little bit more later.  

I can’t imagine a more talented, committed group of public servants to talk about the issues that Brian and his team raised in that dramatic episode that we saw tonight. And so I’d like to start with Lynn, and ask you, Lynn, Brian’s episodes are about nuclear danger. As you think about the world we live in today, would you assess that we are in a world of more nuclear danger than we were in the Cold War, as much nuclear danger, or less nuclear danger than we faced in those terrible years of the Cold War? 

RUSTEN: Well, thanks for the question, Tim. I will answer, but I just want to take a moment first to say, you know, what a powerful, powerful documentary and episode. I had seen this one before, but watching it again it was just as gripping and just as thought-provoking, frankly, as the others. So thank you. And I also want to thank the Council for having me. It’s really an honor to be part of the Warnke remembrance. I actually—it’s not—kind of dropped from my resume, but my very first job in the executive branch was working in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which Paul Warnke led. And one of my early mentors was Spurgeon Keeny, who was very close to him. So I feel his legacy.  

So now I’ll answer your question, because part of the problem is his brilliant legacy is crumbling. I’d say the world is—we’re in a more dangerous place than the Cold War. And, of course, the Cold War was dangerous. It’s easy now to look back and say, well, there was stability. There was—you know, it was a bipolar relationship. We got through it without the use of nuclear weapons. And that’s true. But we also know that was—there was some element of luck in that. We came close to intentional use. We now know, through historical examples, we came closer to accidental use of nuclear weapons than we understood at the time.  

And look at where we are now. We’re in a world of multipolar nuclear states. We had, you know, significant tensions with Russia and with China. China’s a rising nuclear power. All of the guardrails and the agreements that have been built over time, primarily to regulate U.S. and Soviet and Russian competition—that Paul Warnke was so involved in creating himself—have really eroded. And there’s very little left in place. And then we have emerging technologies, like cyber and AI, that make even more complicated the interaction of nuclear weapons systems with humans and with technologies, and the risks that they could be used. So there is a lot happening, which is, I would say, makes the world a more dangerous and a more complex place. 

NAFTALI: Andy, how did you mess things up so much? (Laughter.) No, in fact, the opposite. Andy, I’m going to ask you about a remarkable effort that you helped lead to make—to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. It’s an unusual example of congressional efficiency. So that alone makes it worth thinking about. Could you talk a little bit about your experience with the Nunn-Lugar initiative? What went right and what wasn’t finished? 

WEBER: Well, thank you. And, Brian, thank you for telling this story in a way that will have such educational value for generations to come.  

So I was a young foreign service officer. I volunteered to go to this new country called Kazakhstan to work for Ambassador Bill Courtney, who’s here tonight. And thanks to the vision of two senators—Sam Nunn from Georgia, a Democrat, and Dick Lugar from Indiana, and the Nunn-Lugar Act, they had the vision, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, that all of a sudden Soviet strength, our enemy, the new security challenge was the weakness of the Soviet Union and the possibility that nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction would be diverted to rogue states or used by terrorists.  

And so it was that weakness that we faced. And they crafted legislation, with assistance from people like Ash Carter and Bill Perry, to deal with that messy, messy situation. And in 1992, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about American Embassy Almaty looking for diplomats who find Paris a bore. (Laughter.) And I volunteered the next day to go there. I went into Russian language training. And at the time, we were just doing our jobs. You don’t realize that you’re involved in a historic moment or the unfolding of history. But if there’s one takeaway from this incredible Netflix series, it’s that individuals matter. And two of my heroes, Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar, changed history. And it’s what didn’t happen, the catastrophe that didn’t happen for those, you know, thirty-plus years, that we can all be thankful for. 

NAFTALI: One segue to the subject of tonight’s episode, though, is that among the countries that had to be convinced to give up their nuclear weapons was Ukraine. And many Americans don’t know that commitments were made to Ukraine and its people. Might you share those with us, please?  

WEBER: Well, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation, at the request of the government of Ukraine, gave assurances that that their territorial sovereignty and independence would be protected. And those were not lived up to. And Russia, in a terribly destructive, and violent, and needless way, has resorted to, you know, a barbaric war. But the decision to give up nuclear weapons that were on the territories of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine, in addition to the Russian Federation, those were historic decisions by courageous leaders at the time. And the Nunn-Lugar efforts facilitated those courageous decisions, because we agreed to help them securely dismantle in accordance with treaty obligations—the INF Treaty and the START treaty—to eliminate those nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. So three countries that possessed at the time of their independence huge arsenals of nuclear weapons peacefully gave them up. And it was all done without firing a shot. 

NAFTALI: Brian, when you started, and you and your team started this dramatic program, you did not know what the situation would be like in Ukraine by the time you completed this documentary. What did you learn as you were going through doing these interviews, collecting phenomenal film, videos? What did you learn about the lessons of the Cold War for now, that were useful or could be useful today, as you brought the series to where we are at this moment in Ukraine? 

KNAPPENBERGER: Yeah. First of all, you guys can hear me? Thank you, again, very much for letting us screen this tonight.  

You know, when we—yes, when we started this—I think we started this series about two months before Russia invaded Ukraine. And at the time, you know, what we were thinking about a lot, and I was kind of worried about, was—and Liz and Andy both just touched on this—but the nuclear treaties. So that’s sort of one of the things that made us want to create this series, and also to tie it and try to understand our current moment based on the Cold War. So that—before—you know, we ended up mostly, for obvious reasons, started framing the series with Putin’s invasion. But, you know, we started thinking about nuclear weapons treaties.  

And, you know, one of the—you know, certainly one of the more celebrated aspects of the Cold War, was at these various moments of relative cool-headedness during this period of time, the superpowers were actually able to, you know, achieve some of these treaties. And so that, as a chronology, was really important to us. You know, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the SALT treaties, the INF Treaty, which, you know, we talk to people in Europe about. That’s obviously very important, the those range—intermediate range nuclear missiles are what would hit the capitals of Europe. So this was a very big deal. And then, of course, the New START, and all—and all that. 

And so we found our—we find ourselves—I think Liz just mentioned this, at a time when all of those things have lapsed. Trump had let the INF Treaty lapse. And, you know, I think we’re two years or something from the New START treaty lapsing again, which would put us in a—in a place where, you know, we have no—we have no treaties governing the use or deployment of nuclear weapons. So, as far as—(inaudible). So this is disturbing. I think it’s—that if you’re looking back at the Cold War, I think it would—it’s a good moment to remember those times, those meetings in Reykjavik, and those times in which we were able to kind of get past. You know, it doesn’t look like any negotiation for those treaties is possible in the near future.  

So I think—I mean, I’m very curious to hear, obviously, you know, Liz and Andy speak to this. But, you know, I think looking back—to answer your question—looking back at those moments of where superpowers were able to look past some of these differences and come together and try to figure out how to—how to do something that would be so destructive to so many people, to craft new treaties, to use diplomacy to get us past this moment. 

NAFTALI: Liz, Andy, how do we create the conditions necessary for the cool-headedness to build some kind of architecture or some kind of bridge out of the situation we find ourselves in today? 

RUSTEN: Yeah, I know it’s hard to—it’s hard to build that. I mean, it seems clear that, with respect to Russia, some kind of cessation of hostilities in Ukraine is going to be a prerequisite for them to be prepared to engage with the United States. But I think you know, the obligation of governments and people outside who work on these issues are to continue to be, you know, ready to have those discussions, to make clear that the door is open to negotiation, and have an idea of, you know, what it is we’ll put on the table.  

Of course, now it’s complicated as well because there’s a great concern about China’s expected growth in its nuclear arsenal. We had a government Biden official say just recently that in the absence of negotiations with both countries, at some point in the future the United States may not be able to live at the New START levels. So we are—as you mentioned, the New START treaty is going to expire in February of 2026. We will then be in a completely unregulated environment in terms of any constraints on deployed strategic weapons.  

Leaders really matter. You made that point. You made that point. You made that point. You know, I think we need bold leadership. And I believe there will be a time actually where Russia and the United States will actually agree to continue some kind of negotiations, because I actually think it’s not in Russia’s interest to have the United States be unconstrained. And so I think at some point, you know, it’s kind of, like, we—both countries don’t have the same priority at the same time, but I think we’ll get to a point where we will. I think the situation with China is more complex. 


WEBER: Yeah. I would add, we have to learn from history. I mean, at one point, we had over 60,000 nuclear weapons. And arms control, as Paul Warnke, was one of the leaders, well understood, it’s not a pollyannish exercise. It’s not about nuclear abolition or disarmament. It’s about mutual security. It’s about enhancing United States security. And so, you know, while we’re witnessing—and watching that episode just reinforced my belief that Putin is the last dying gasp of the Soviet Union. He’s a loser. He’s going to lose this. He’s already, you know, faced strategic losses—stupid, self-inflicted wounds on Russia.  

But we have to never forget that, you know, as Reagan said, a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. And I worry about backsliding. I think the situation is much worse than it’s ever been during the Cold War. We have this hot war in Europe today. And we’re talking loosely about small tactical nuclear weapons. Well, these are, you know, about the size of the weapons that we dropped on Hiroshima. So we need to delegitimize Putin’s reckless brandishing of these so-called small nuclear weapons.  

NAFTALI: Lynn, you wanted to— 

RUSTEN: Just one point. So Paul Warnke famously wrote an article in Foreign Policy, I think it was, called “Apes on a Treadmill,” about the nuclear arms race and the senselessness of a nuclear arms race. And he made the case actually for self-restraint, for unilateral—you know, not unilateral disarmament, but, you know, that you have to sort of figure out how much is enough in this case. And you don’t have to mimic what—you know, what your adversary is doing. And I think we are—we are already entering a new era of apes on a treadmill. But there’s—and there’s more apes and more treadmills.  

And what’s absent from this, I think, as much engagement from the public, certainly in our country and probably in others, to say, you know, actually, we don’t want you to be on that treadmill. That, you know, why do we need to spend trillions more on even more nuclear weapons than we have? And why is—you know, why aren’t we going in the other direction? I mean, we may be for the first time in thirty or forty years, as Andy said, going down from the Cold War heights of over 30,000 to now to a few thousand. And we may now be on the cusp of going back up, senselessly. 

NEFTALI: I love—I’m a trained historian and I love calling on historical parallels, and disputing them, but at least using them as sources of questions.  

There is one challenge, though, that we face now that I think is a little different from the Cold War in that we have to deter two things at the same time. One is nuclear war and the other is conventional aggression.  

Because the Soviets didn’t invade a Western country; they invaded Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Afghanistan. And as Mary Sarotte in—the episode mentioned the historian Mary Sarotte—we have this problem of deterring Putin. Since the fact we have nuclear weapons didn’t deter him from invading Ukraine, and he’s now bluffing or he’s now engaging in nuclear threats, to what extent should we be sensitive to not deterring ourselves and putting enough pressure on him to break his offensive in Ukraine? 

RUSTEN: So I think about this slightly differently. I mean, at one level you could say at the strategic level deterrence is actually working and by that I mean there’s a reason why Putin hasn’t, for instance, struck supply lines in Poland or anywhere in NATO countries in terms of the, you know, weapons and assistance that’s going to Ukraine, and, you know, there has been, you know, caution exercised by President—I’m sorry, by President Biden and, you know, NATO about how far we go in terms of providing assistance to Ukraine.  

And I think all of that is because neither Putin nor NATO nor the United States want a direct military conflict between Russia and NATO because, A, that’ll be a huge war and, B, it has a big risk of nuclear escalation.  

I mean, what is really the challenge and it was mentioned in this—you know, in this segment is, you know, what we have for the first time is a nuclear power, you know, attacking a nonnuclear country that isn’t allied with nuclear countries so there’s no one committed to its defense in that way under cover of its nuclear weapons, and not only is it horrible for Ukraine but it’s incredibly corrosive of the whole nuclear nonproliferation regime. It’s fueling proliferation pressures and anxieties amongst allies—our allies in Europe and Asia.  

Of course, it’s combined with concern about what is the—how much can—how much and for how long and how deeply can the United States be counted on in terms of our own commitment to the security of our allies.  

So it’s really corrosive and there’s no easy answer because the answer is that, to be frank but I think it’s true, Putin has a stronger national security interest and imperative to do the horrible things he’s doing in Ukraine than we in the West have in defending Ukraine to the point of actually risking conflict with Russia.  

So that’s just a realpolitik analysis of a really bad situation.  


WEBER: Well, the basic paradox of Russia’s war on Ukraine—needless war on Ukraine is that the better Ukraine performs on the battlefield and the more we support Ukraine in this, and we must because it’s the security of, literally, the free world that’s at stake, the more likely Putin is to resort to nuclear weapons.  

And so I think it’s been a ratcheting up of pressure gradually, the types of assistance that we’re providing to Ukraine. Some would argue it’s been a little slow to ramp up. But the squeeze is getting, you know, harder. It’s going to take great endurance and diplomacy to survive this because of that basic paradox and the fact that Putin and Putin alone can decide to use nuclear weapons if he feels he’s losing.  

NAFTALI: Before we turn to questions from the audience I wanted to ask Brian. Brian, you did some great reporting from Ukraine. To what extent are they afraid in Ukraine about the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in this crisis—in this war?  

KNAPPENBERGER: I talked to them a little bit about that and I didn’t—I got a sense, just to be kind of blunt, that they—that, you know, that—you know, when I talked to Zelensky I talked to some other officials and they are—my impression was they’re so overwhelmed with what they’re dealing with there right now that it’s—that, you know, I think it’s a worry. But they have so many immediate worries on their hands that that seems to be kind of obsessing their day-to-day lives.  

So I don’t know if I have a lot of insight onto what they’re thinking there. But, yeah, you know, except, you know, the—you know, what Andy mentioned earlier about the fact that, you know, you get a lot of comments like, you know, we had nuclear—we were a nuclear—you know, we had nuclear weapons at one point and we just need the full support of the United States to get us through this.  

NAFTALI: Are there any questions from the audience? We have a mic. So I saw, like, this gentleman first. So— 

Q: Thank you so much. This is truly wonderful. I appreciate all of the insights that you’re offering.  

My question is for Brian. My name is Alex. Most recently—I’m an Army officer. 

I was most recently assigned as a(n) instructor at the department of social sciences at West Point where we’ve had many spirited conversations about this documentary series on Netflix, and one of the things that I was curious about is that in some of the earlier episodes it at least appeared to me that there was a bit of a sense that in the Khrushchev era and in the Brezhnev era there was an undertone put in the documentary that had the United States had better communication, had we been less suspicious, and had we been a little bit more trusting of the Soviet relationship that we would not have needed to build up as much of a stockpile of nuclear weapons as we did during the height of the Cold War in the ’60s.  

And I’m curious if you can respond to that. Was that your intention? Do you have a different view about that? Why do you think that there was such a buildup of nuclear stockpiles in the early years? Thank you.  

KNAPPENBERGER: Well, the striking—it’s funny. I think Tim speaks to this in the documentary at some point. The most striking thing I think that we were thinking about when we got that I hope is helpful—you know, gets at your question is this idea of the missile gap—you know, this notion that we were driven by a kind of fear in the ’50s that the first testing—nuclear testing of the Soviet bomb—the successful test of the Soviet bomb set off along with other things just a fear that we were seized with during that period of time and that we built up nuclear weapons and there was a lot of bluster on both sides.  

Obviously, by the time—you know, Khrushchev has the famous lines about, you know, we’re building missiles like sausages. There’s this dramatic building up of nuclear weapons on our side under Eisenhower.  

You know, this is a political issue where people are using this—you know, people are more than willing to, (sort of saying ?), soft on the communists to gain political points. And I think that that just leads to this remarkable moment that where, you know, we get those first—that first intelligence that, you know, there is a missile gap but it’s something like, you know, a thousand to one in our favor and that that doesn’t change our—the ways that people including Kennedy are campaigning on this idea of the missile gap and using the fear that comes out of the Cold War in order to—just for—to score political points.  

So I hope—I don’t know if that gets directly at your question but there’s certainly a sense if there was a better understanding of what was going on on both sides we—you know, you wonder what—how that could affect—change things. 

NAFTALI: Can I take a whack? 

KNAPPENBERGER: Is that close to what you’re asking? I hope—yeah.  

NAFTALI: Can I take a whack at that for—since Brian mentioned me? 

The Soviets understood that we were afraid and they took advantage of our fear of nuclear weapons. But they didn’t understand that if you make us fearful we are going to build lots of them in response and they didn’t understand our domestic political situation.  

So what they ended up with is they helped create a behemoth—a nuclear behemoth—by pretending that they were ahead in the nuclear arms race. What we didn’t understand was that the Soviets were fearful of us. The Soviets were competing with us and they were—they had imperial aspirations and we had some hegemonic aspirations too but the difference was they were really afraid of our power and they knew we were ahead, and that’s something we didn’t understand.  

We just didn’t, and so the efforts of the U.S. government to tell the Soviets, hey, look, let’s not have these crises because we basically have the same amount of nuclear weapons actually scared them even more, and the effect of that was to actually get Khrushchev to put missiles in Cuba.  

He puts missiles in Cuba not to defend the Cuban revolution as much as to be able to make Americans fearful because he believed that deterrence was only through a balance of fear.  

What the Soviets didn’t understand about us was they didn’t actually understand our democratic system at all and so they believed that once the United States military understood that the Soviets were weak that the United States would launch a first strike.  

They had no understanding whatsoever of the nature of civilian control of the United States military, not at all. Their—which I’ve read—their intelligence on this country was crazy, and so they didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand them, which doesn’t mean we would have had global détente that was deeper than we achieved in that era. But we would have, I think, avoided some of the crises that occurred. 

But we just did not understand each other and I think that was the—what Brian and his team were getting at in that period. We didn’t need to be as fearful as we were of each other but we were in that period and that’s one of the reasons I’ve asked my colleagues about Russian bluff because Putin is a creature of that world.  

He’s not old enough to, you know, been anyone of consequence in the Khrushchev era but he’s a creature of a world where the Soviets were behind and needed to scare Americans to be equal, to have parity, and I wonder how much of his approach to dealing with us is actually a product of the utility of making us fearful by constantly threatening to do things he doesn’t intend to do just as Khrushchev didn’t intend to do. I mean in the nuclear world.  

But, of course, who knows and who wants to take the risk that a bluff is not a bluff?  

Is there another question? Yes, go ahead. 

Q: Doug Ollivant with FPRI.  

In the film towards the end I didn’t catch her name but you had a woman on the screen who talked about how we’ve lost our terror or a level of seriousness about— 

NAFTALI: Mary Sarotte, I think. 

Q: Yeah, exactly—about nuclear weapons. I think I’m probably the youngest person in the room who can remember when introduction to international relations was 75 percent deterrent theory, and when I talk to people a couple of decades or two my junior about deterrence theory I sometimes feel like, well, look, you need to go, like, watch The Day After twice and then put 99 Luftballons on loop for a couple hours and then we can have a conversation. 

You just talked about how, perhaps, we were overly fearful in the ’80s and I’m interested from all four of you are those of us who grew up in the ’80s under that regime and that type are we too fearful about nuclear weapons and too cautious about deterrence theory?  

Or do, perhaps, we need to caution our twenty- and thirty- and forty-year-old juniors that this needs to be taken more seriously and perhaps you don’t really understand or aren’t taking seriously enough the consequences of a failure of deterrence theory. 

NAFTALI: I just want to make a note. Certainly, I wasn’t arguing that we exaggerated— 

Q: I’m not saying you did. I just—I just pulled your quote.  

NAFTALI: —that the threat of nuclear weapons into the Soviet—I think the key was whether the Soviets wanted war, and they didn’t. That’s the key. We learned this through this through this—when we saw these Soviet records. They didn’t want nuclear war, and we sure as heck didn’t want it. But we didn’t understand the extent to which both sides didn’t want it, and that’s what led to fears.  

Q: Right, but—yeah. My fundamental question is: Are we too scarred or are they too blasé? 

RUSTEN: No. Can I take that? 

NAFTALI: Go ahead. 

RUSTEN: They’re too blasé. I mean, I think, you know, what we did—(laughter)—what we did have, and I almost remember duck and cover exercises. I mean, we had a healthy sense of fear and, certainly, again, talking about leaders, I mean, look at the—what happened after the Cuban missile crisis after—you know, after we came that close and, you know, two leaders in adversarial countries decided that wasn’t the path they wanted to be on and launched, you know, CTBT, you know, test bans, NPT, all the strategic arms control agreements.  

I think, you know, our publics—the public isn’t really—is pretty complacent about this. The Ukraine crisis has awakened a little bit of, you know, interest and concern as have things like Oppenheimer, your film, a couple of other, you know, series.  

But I actually worry—we also seem to—forgetting why nonproliferation is in the U.S. interest. So I actually worry—well, OK. George Schultz, not that long ago before he died, I don’t know, sometime in the last decade testified before Congress and said he was really worried that we’d lost our sense of dread. 

And I think we see this—I worry about a whole—a new generation of policymakers and practitioners and experts who seem pretty cavalier about the idea of tactical nuclear weapons, the idea that you can control—you know, have a limited nuclear conflict and control it, overconfidence in deterrence not breaking down. And now, as I said, there’s even a small little flourishing, you know, group of people who are saying things like: Well, why would it be bad for our allies—for Japan or for—or for South Korea to have nuclear weapons? Why shouldn’t our allies have weapons and help us with our adversaries? So I think there is a real loss of understanding of these issues, and a complacency about the destructiveness of these weapons, the inability to control them, and the consequences if we go down that path.  


WEBER: What Lynn said. (Laughter.) 

NAFTALI: Brian, do you want to say something to that?  

KNAPPENBERGER: No. I think that sounds right. I mean, you know, we are in this weird world where we are—where Putin is making this incursion into Ukraine, taking a bet that we’re not going to engage in a nuclear exchange with him and pushing the boundaries as far as it can go.  

So, you know, I mean, in a very broad sense, you know, the deterrence or mutually assured destruction it seems like a losing path eventually because as long as we—as Elizabeth Eaves says in the piece, as long as we have these nuclear weapons around, at some point they’re going to use them by mistake or on purpose or—you know, they’re going to get used. And so, yeah. You know, I don’t know if I had any anything kind of more to add. 

I do think—actually, I’m curious if this—that China won’t engage in this discussion until there’s parity. This is what I’ve heard. Is that—Liz probably knows this better than I. 

WEBER: Well, I think there’s been an oversimplification of China’s nuclear buildup, which is focused on their triad—their strategic nuclear weapons. What China—we never talk about what China isn’t doing. They’re not deploying tactical nuclear weapons. They’re not changing their doctrine towards this idea of limited nuclear warfighting.  

And Russia under Putin, you know, sort of started this direction of doctrine making it OK to use nuclear weapons first in a limited scenario. It was called the escalate to deescalate policy and we’ve started to mimic that and I think we need to take a step back and, you know, remember the lessons of the INF treaty, that it was these so-called smaller theater tactical nuclear weapons that were the most likely to be used and once one nuclear weapon is used preventing escalation and an all-out nuclear war is extremely difficult.  

NAFTALI: You on the middle table you’ve been waiting. Yes. Thank you. Thank you.  

Q: Hi. Thank you. I’m Karen Alter from Northwestern University.  

I’ve only seen this episode of the documentary series and so I found it interesting that for so long it was about the war in Ukraine and then it switched to talking about Hiroshima and the nuclear threat. And so it’s leading me to wonder a couple things with Brian.  

When you bookend this how is this link to the nuclear part always part of that, and part of me is wondering—you know, we’ve been talking about the Cold War and we’ve been talking about the U.S. and the Soviet Union and Russia and China, the greatest powers that will get to a mutually assured destruction capability.  

But, yet, the most likely proliferation that we have right now are a number of states that are not going to get to that ability. We have Pakistan and India that have had nuclear weapons for quite a while and now we’re going to have Iran. North Korea’s had them for a while. It may get up to MAD capacity. It may not.  

But so what do we think about then if we pivot to these other domains of these countries—Saudi Arabia then will probably acquire nuclear weapons—of these smaller countries that are not tied into the same competition of how many nukes can we have, how many can we have mutually assured destruction, do they lay out a threat posture of when they will use nuclear weapons. 

I just don’t even really know how to think about these smaller size nuclear countries. 

NAFTALI: Someone want to take a swing at that?  


RUSTEN: I’ll take one swing.  

So I have a colleague who likes to say that we have nine single points of failure and what he means by that is we have nine leaders—you know, one leader in each of nine countries currently that have nuclear weapons, that have the sole authority to use nuclear weapons, and that’s pretty scary when you think that it could happen intentionally, accidentally, due to miscalculation, due to deep fake, whatever.  

But you’re right. I mean, in some ways the more likely—well, at least we used to think the more likely use cases are actually, you know, South Asia, India, Pakistan, or North Korea whose, you know, missile and nuclear program is growing significantly and there’s no diplomacy around that at all.  

So and you’re right too that there’s risk of additional proliferation with Iran’s growing—they don’t have weapons yet but nuclear program, other countries in the Middle East who are eyeing that warily. And as I mentioned we have countries that who currently rely on the U.S. extended deterrence and are wondering about the long-term reliability of the U.S. and having internal debates like in South Korea about whether they should consider this. So it’s a really dangerous world.  

NAFTALI: Unlike the world we have a very strong, regulated environment here and we’ve come to the end of our allotted time. 

KNAPPENBERGER: That’s a good transition. (Laughter.) 

NAFTALI: I just invented it. I want to thank—well, first of all, I want to thank Brian for your genius and that of your team.  

KNAPPENBERGER: Thank you. Thank you. 

NAFTALI: So, first of all, thank you. (Applause.) 

KNAPPENBERGER: Thank you very much.  

NAFTALI: And from the—and for the colleague from Northwestern, did you say, there are eight other episodes. Don’t miss out.  

Lynn, Andy, it’s been an honor and a privilege to be here with you today. Thank you for sharing your expertise and for your public service.  

And to the Council, thank you, Council, and thank all of you for attending tonight, and I hope to those of you who are from the Warnke family that Paul Warnke would have enjoyed, perhaps, not the conclusions of tonight but the seriousness with which we have dealt with these issues that he devoted his entire career to thinking about.  

So thank you all, and good night. (Applause.)  


This is an uncorrected transcript. 

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